Fighting cancer with $200 and a shoebox

Gretchen Purser Chair, Race to End Women’s Cancer

In 1980, a woman named Nancy lost her sister Suzy to breast cancer. At the time, neither breasts nor cancer were discussed in polite society. Cancer was so misunderstood, in fact, that people actually feared that Suzy was contagious and avoided being around her. She passed away at just 36.

Nancy Brinker promised her sister she would do something about breast cancer. And she has kept that promise. What began in 1982 with a shoebox containing $200 and a list of friends has become a worldwide phenomenon — the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Each October, the pink ribbon is displayed everywhere. Even football players — from high school to the NFL — wear pink to promote breast cancer awareness. As a result of this attention and funding, doctors can now diagnose breast cancer down to the specific type and strain and treat the cancer accordingly. Today, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer has, on average, a 75% chance of survival. It is still a very serious and deadly disease, but thanks to Nancy and the work of countless others, a breast cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

Tremendous gains have been made, but they had to start somewhere.

This is our somewhere for another group of cancers that are killing our sisters, mothers, wives and daughters — gynecologic cancers. That is why I am asking you to join the Race to End Women’s Cancer on Sunday, November 6.

Unfortunately, gynecologic cancers have received neither the funding nor the attention that breast, colon and prostate cancer have received. As a result, the survival rates for gynecologic cancers are extremely low. For ovarian cancer specifically, there is no accurate screen, no accurate test and other than the surgical removal and testing of the ovaries, no means of diagnosis. What symptoms exist are vague and extremely easy to misdiagnose, so the majority of cases are not diagnosed until late stage, when they have spread — which is why the average survival rate for ovarian cancer is under 25%.

This movement is today where the movement to find a cure for breast cancer was nearly 30 years ago. People are uncomfortable discussing the “below the belt” cancers — women keep symptoms to themselves and presume, often at their doctor’s suggestion, that they are hormonal and will resolve themselves over time. This misinformation is costing us dearly — we are losing our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and friends by the thousands each year. We stand by helplessly as they suffer and wish that there was something that could be done.

In 2003, I lost my mother to ovarian cancer. Not long after that, a friend whose children went to school with mine died of cervical cancer. Then, a neighbor died of ovarian cancer, leaving behind her husband and 12-year-old son. This week, I learned that a young mother of two little children has just been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer that has spread to her liver and her lungs; a month ago she had no symptoms. She is 35 years old. The list goes on and on.

Something can — and must — be done. I am chairing this race so that someday, when my daughter Vivion is an adult, she will not worry about gynecologic cancer. Because there will be diagnostic tests, and prevention, and information, and effective treatment, and ultimately, a cure. None of these exist today, but someday they will.

You can be part of the cure — not for my mother or for my daughter, but for yours. Join the Race to End Women’s Cancer, Sunday, November 6 — and spread the word! Sign up today!

Just think, Nancy Brinker used to lay awake at night wondering if one person could make a difference. You can be that one person.

Gretchen Purser is the chair of the Race to End Women’s Cancer and is the former finance director for the Republican National Committee.